Alaska steep skiing trip – part 2

… continued from part 1

Wednesday 12th May

After a couple of days rest at the cabin by Big Lake, we set off in the Chevy again and took the Glenn highway to for Chitina, and our rendezvous with Paul Claus.

I think we might be veterans of the highway now. When we stopped for coffee we were asked where we are off to this time, and the girls at the road works waved as we chugged past in the old red Chevy with Dylan and Morrison (Jim and Van) blaring out from the antique cassette player.

The drive to Chitina took us through the Alaskan wilderness. We skirted the north side of the Chugach where the Matanuska and later on the Nelchina glaciers force their way proudly out of the mountains and through the forests below towards the highway, and the civilisation that can never tame them.

After the Eureka Roadhouse, the highway passes an enormous body of water, Tazlina Lake, and then the seaplane anchorage at Tolson Lake. Finally, we reached Glenallen. The mighty Wrangell – St. Elias range reared up in front of us inspiring us with thoughts of the adventures to come, and fears of the isolation that we are about to commit to. We turned south and followed the valley between the Wrangell’s and the Chugach, running parallel with the Trans-Alaska pipeline which transports much needed oil down to the lower 48.

Despite thinking that we had given ourselves a good two hour safety window to get to Chitina, we only had five minutes to spare. Paul arrived bang on time; at the same time as Pual’s daughter Ellie arrived on an Ultima Thule convoy. She, with her team of dogs, had just become the youngest person, ever, to complete the Iditarod dogsled race. Paul had to take her home. And we got a discounted fare because we had to share the plane with the dogs.

Paul flew us to his lodge. It is 100 miles from the end of the nearest road, in the heart of the national park. You could not really imagine living in a more remote place.

Paul invited us to the house, for a big communal dinner with family, friends and workers. Paul and Donna run an exclusive adventure lodge. But out of season there are no guests so we joined them.

With no city lights around it was very dark out there at night.

Thursday 13th May

We woke up in our cabin on the Chitina River and had a quick breakfast. Then Paul flew us all into the Upper Bernard glacier.

Paul took us on a route that must have been part of his spectators tour of the Wrangell’s. He flew the plane between a cliff and a separated needle before skimming spectacularly over jagged, rocky cols. And suddenly, we were hanging miles above the broken glacier of the adjacent valley. We flew past the south face of University Peak.

We had thought of skiing it, but learned it had been skied already so dropped it from our agenda.

Setting up camp was more efficient this time.

We didn’t have to cart the gear too far from the plane

After we finished settling into camp, Dave and Wolfi headed over to a small bluff on the north side of the glacier for a view of the valley. I went on my own, to a slope on the south side of the valley, on the west face of peak 10670. At the apex of the face, I turned around. I was at about 9500 feet. The descent was awesome, perfect spring snow. At one point, I headed too far to skiers right, and ended up on blue ice under a centimetre of snow. I had to back up gingerly, but other than that the snow was perfect.

Friday 14th May

The peak in front is Supercub peak, which has never been climbed from this side. We were all set to ski it by the two obvious snow patches which are linked by a small couloir but bad weather put us off on our choosen day. It is over 5000′ from the seracs at the base to the summit.

We set off to have a go at the couloir off peak 11544 due north of us, but even with an early start we got there too late and it was raining stones down on us so we all backed off in time to see a huge serac fall dust our tracks.

Dave and I headed back to the camp site while Wili and Wolfi went off to take some photos.

Back at camp Dave decided to head up the face I had skied yesterday, all in all an impressive amount of climbing for that day with the morning’s aborted start. Dave said the conditions were perfect and had a good cruising ski down it.

I had a snooze

Saturday 15th May

We all went up to ski the 11500 foot high face at the SE end of Super Cub peak. It was quite a climb. 4200 feet above the campsite.

It took two hours to reach the rimay and another three to get to the top.

Because of yesterdays dodging falling rocks we had started much earlier today but still had the excitement of hearing them whizzing down around us at times. The slope was continuous 45°.

We sat in the snow for half an hour and waited for it to soften up.

We got it just right. Perfect spring snow again. You could carve large GS turns all the way down. I went for the large face that narrowed into a smallish slot at its base. The others headed back down the same couloir we had climbed up.

Wednesday 19th May

We climbed the peak to the SW of the camp site. Wolfi and I took a route that we could skin-up. And Dave and Wili decided to boot pack a different route. Near the top of our line, we ended up in deep snow, and lost our advantage. Our line took us to the peak proper, while Dave and Wili were at the other end of the summit ridge; slightly lower but only by a few meters.

We all skiied the SE face.

It narrows into a smallish couloir that spits you out over the rimay.

Wili and Wolfi went to ski another couloir that went further down to the glacier, while Dave and I both headed back up to the face we had both skied earlier in the week. The climb out of the glacier basin was challenging. It started out up a narrow couloir that got a bit narrower and steeper. Here it became slush. And underneath the slush was glossy smooth ice, running with water. I had elected to climb without crampons or axes, and I was using my ski’s in my hands to help me stay on top of the snow. At this point, I started to regret the lack of crampons. I had to struggle, bridging off the rock sides of the couloir. After that we climbed up some scree and some more rotten snow eventually led us to the ridge at the top. Here we got the ski’s back on and traversed the ridge towards peak 10670. Near the end of the traverse, we had to drop a couple of rimay’s. Dave found the widest part of one and only just made it. The snow was so sticky in the afternoon sun that we could ski up to the bottom of the face without putting skins on.

We climbed the face again. There was fresh snow since our last run down earlier in the week. This was our final ski of the trip and it was a fitting one.

Steep and scary at the top

with the camp visable 2500′ feet below your feet

It blended into fast open terrain after the rimay and you could carry just enough speed to get back to camp without having to walk.

Wilfred and Wolfgang putting in some powder 8 practice on their final run of the trip.

Thursday 20th May

The sun rises on our last morning on the glacier.

Shortly afterwards Paul arrives to fly us out.

This time we fly straight to Chitina, sadly not getting a stop at the Claus homestead.

Looking over Willow Lake with the Wrangell’s in the background.

Wilfred tries to mend the broken camera


This is where we were on the Upper Powell Glacier. The red lines are the descents we did numbered in the order we did them.

This is where we were on the Upper Bernard Glacier.

Report Written for the American Alpine Journal

Upper Powell Glacier and Upper Bernard Glacier. During May of 2004.

Mike Meekins flew Dave Kinsella (Ireland), Wilfred Glanznig (Austria), Wolfgang Huber (Austria) and Phillip Ingle (Wales) into the upper Powell Glacier on the N side of the Chugach Range on May 4th. We set up camp at about 7000′ in the middle of the Glacier. After setting up camp we split into two groups and headed up the NE ridge of peak9845 and up to the ridge SW of peak9138. A subsidiary peak of about 9100′ was reached on the SW ridge of peak9138 and the descent made on skis via the same route as the ascent. Peak9845 was reached and a ski attempt made down the N face but after encountering ice the route was changed back to the NE ridge. On May 5th team members headed up to peak9570 at the head of the glacier and skied the S face. The peak itself wasn’t reached. On May 6th an attempt was made on peak8710 the summit was not reached but a couloir on the E side of it was skied. On May 7th a 9400′ peak NW of camp was climbed and a couloir on its SW face skied in descent. The 9200′ peak, SE of camp was climbed to within 10m of its summit and the couloir on its NW side skied. This couloir was repeated the following day as well as the one just to its east. At the same time peak9138 was climbed by its NW face and skied by the same route in descent. On May 9th peak9570 at the head of the glacier was climbed to within 20m of its summit. It was skied by a couloir starting on its NE shoulder and the direct line down its E face.

Paul Claus flew the same group into the upper Bernard Glacier in the Wrangell’s just east of University Peak on May 13th. We set up camp at about 7200′ in the middle of the glacier. After setting up camp the W face of peak10170 was climbed to where it flattens off at around 9200′ and skied. The SE face of the S ridge of Super Cub peak was climbed to its apex at around 11500′ and skied on May 15th. A 9800′ peak just S of a 9695 spot height, SE of camp was climbed on May 19th and descended by the obvious couloir on its S side.

Reviews of the previous 10 AAJ’s and discussions with the pilots lead us to believe that none of the peaks that we climbed upon other than Super Cub peak had been climbed before. The ski descents were exposed and between 45° and 60° and we believe they were all firsts.